FOSS, Business, and Psychopathy

Corporations are leaders in developing open source software, yet a Groklaw editorial reveals that the community has scant understanding of corporate politics.
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Sometimes, the naivety in the free and open source software (FOSS) community seems willful. How else to explain the outrage in some circles when another company is caught fulfilling its natural function of maximizing its profits at the expense of FOSS ideals?

Too often, FOSS supporters fail to understand corporations -- and, consequently, they are unable to deal effectively with them.

The latest example is the article on Groklaw about Novell's interactions with Microsoft over Microsoft's Office Open XML file format.

The article requires some patience. It starts with the giant leap of logic that Microsoft is pursuing the same tactics to sabotage OpenOffice.org that it did twenty years ago with the OS/2 operating system, and includes the obligatory swipe at Miguel de Izaca.

But, despite such excesses, it still manages to report accurately on the situation, proving beyond any serious doubt that Novell's interactions with Microsoft were contrary to the interests of both FOSS and Novell's status as a company that derives part of its income from FOSS.

However, what is extraordinary to me is the shocked tone of the article. A cynic might dismiss the tone as that of a demagogue playing to the crowd, but to me it seems too sustained to be anything but genuine. The first sentence describes the interaction as "gruesome," and the article goes on to bemoan "the sorry picture." Near the end it contains the soliloquy:

Oh, Novell. What were you thinking? Why would you agree to this? I can read these words, so why couldn't you? They say you are being used to prop up the reputation of Open XML, while not really making it compatible in the end. What kind of goals are these? For a *standard*? For a company selling GNU/Linux?

Then, as if that were not enough, on Christmas Day, Groklaw founder Pamela Jones posted her reaction to the news. Referring to the fact that Groklaw's coverage doubtlessly helped Novell win its case against SCO, Jones says that she felt "used and abused" to learn about Novell's dealings with Microsoft:

Should Groklaw stop helping people like that, I asked? Is it time to shut Groklaw down? If not, is there a way to carve out helping Linux and FOSS, which is what we are about, from helping self-interested executives and board members so that in essence we end up being used by them so they get larger piles of money because we worked ourselves to the bone and then they repay the community with such a deal as this?

The sense of betrayal is unmistakable, both in itself and in the fact that it echoes what I have heard countless times before. Moreover, I sympathize and find the expression of disillusion painful to read. Trauma, after all, is never pleasant to witness.

Yet, at the same time, I wonder: how can anyone report on the doings of corporations for eight years and still be surprised when a company acts likes a company? I ask the question not because I am attacking Groklaw or Jones, but because the reaction is typical of large parts of the FOSS community, and is frequently counter-productive.

The IT Department and the Board Room

The problem is that many FOSS advocates have a limited experience of corporations. If they have not spent most of their lives outside the corporate structure, either in journalism or academia, they are generally IT professionals, whose sub-culture is separate from that of the boardrooms in which decisions are made. In an IT department, you can believe all too easily that the norm is creativity unfettered by necessities of the market. In the IT department, when corporate reality intervenes, it is often easily dismissed as the cluelessness of marketing drones and pointy-headed bosses. Such attitudes are even more prevalent in academia or journalism, where they are all the stronger for being secondhand.

When you are inexperienced or sheltered, having any insight into how things operates is almost impossible. Probably, that inadequacy is why some FOSS advocates over-compensate by seeing gigantic conspiracies everywhere in business. This perspective not only has the advantage of easily explaining everything, but its cynicism allows the inexperienced to believe themselves wise in the ways of the world.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Microsoft, FOSS, Novell

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